This was a hard read, because it’s fairly theoretical, even though it’s formally a novel. Ultimately a pleasure though – it had me stop and think an idea over every couple of pages.
At the dawn of the Cold War, a number of American intellectuals of different persuasions (but mostly former Marxism and anarchism fans) plus a couple of ordinary people decide to show the world and people could be better, buy an old hotel and start a colony which they call Utopia – indicating just how hard they believe their premise. Utopia starts with an embarrassment, when the future residents react with instinctive indignation at the idea of a „capitalist“ – that is, a non-intellectual businessman – applying to the colony. They immediately realise the shameful implications this reaction has for people proposing to demonstrate the true capacity of humans to be magnanimous, inclusive and peaceful, among other things. They repeat the same process later, after a few months of contented living outside civilisation which seems more concerned with the form of Utopia than the substance of it – or, as Katy, the only character who isn’t severely satirised, puts it, Utopia’s material triumphs rather than the triumph of its idea. Confronted with regular people trespassing on their territory and picking their strawberries, the colonists’ first impulse is to drive them off their property. As with the initial setback with the businessman’s application, they see what their actions really say about them – they catch a glimpse of themselves in a mirror „placed at a turning point where they had expected to see daylight and freedom“ – and are intensely embarrassed by this second betrayal of their inability to conquer their privileged social standing and thus, their minds, despite all their pretenses: „the middle class composition of the colony, […], feeling itself imperiled, had acted instinctively, as an organism, to extrude the riffraff from its midst“. This effectively ends the illusion and sets the wheels of dissolution in motion.
The book is a scathing, exposing satire of the hollow pretensions of rich intellectuals, as McCarthy obviously saw them. The foreword says the characters were obviously based on her friends and acquaintances and she seems to have despised them – their hypocrisy, their narrow-mindedness, their intellectual complacency. She shows them as obsolete and irrelevant, people who never realised their grand ideas about transforming the world and who were, in any case, incapable of doing so. Navel-gazing, obstinately rooted in the past, when they had relevance, forever wishing to go back and tweak the circumstances so that their ideas could be realised, so they could live in a present that isn’t mocking them with the inglorious failure of their prophesies about the world and their theories of human nature. Most of the characters – and especially Will Taub, the most prominent intellectual, based on McCarthy’s lover – are petty and vindictive, more involved in proving the other faction wrong than showing the merits of their own philosophy; modifying their ideas to provide justification for their actions and habits that don’t fit with their philosophy of equality and justice. In the end, they look pathetic and sad – McCarthy shows no mercy for any of her characters. She must have been a formidable friend to have.
The Oasis sounds amusingly current to me – the petty fights between the Purist and Realist factions and the comical difference between pompous intellectualising and actual scope of influence and action strongly reminds me of a few types of modern influencers. Consider this quote for example: “boredom and urban cynicism had become so natural to them that an experience from which these qualities were absent seemed to be, in some way, defective.” It’s really fun if you can suspend your sympathy and indulge in glee over other people’s moral and intellectual failures. I couldn’t find much compassion in McCarthy’s writing, but it’s not sneering, either – she’s not speaking from a place of moral superiority, which is entirely to the book’s credit.